Alison Gopnik is the author of the new book The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children. Her other books include The Philosophical Baby and The Scientist in the Crib. She is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. She lives in Berkeley, California.
Q: You write that “parenting is a terrible invention.” How would you define parenting, and why do you see it this way?
A: One thing people don’t realize is that the word “parenting” is really recent. There’s nothing until about 1960, and since then there’s been an enormous use.
The word comes with a particular picture of what the relationship between a parent and child should be: if parents get the best skills, they can shape how the child comes out, the way a carpenter makes a chair.
That kind of picture—if you get the right apps, books, toys, you get the tools to shape the child to be a better adult—is incredibly pervasive. But it’s actually recent.
Q: And why do you describe that as terrible?
A: It doesn’t fit well with what science tells us about the relationship between parents and children, and the evolutionary purpose of the relationship between parents and children.
Science tells us the reason we have a long period of childhood is because it gives each generation a way to explore new possibilities. We have children with a wide range of temperaments and abilities, and each reinvents a way to see the world…
The role of parents isn’t to shape children to come out a particular way, but to give them a stable, secure, rich base to enable them to come out in different ways.
From an evolutionary perspective, it would be self-defeating [if children all turned out the same. This model] is not a good one. The picture [parents] have is of a job they have to do, and if they don’t do the right thing right now, the children will be a failure and the will be responsible.
That’s not a good picture of what any relationship should be! It leads, in terms of a day-to-day relationship, to [a situation that] makes life worse, not better.
Q: Why did this concept become so popular?
A: I think the answer is that through the vast majority of human history, the way we learned to be a parent was by taking care of children. Lots more people took care of babies…the whole village was designed to take care of children.
By the time you were 14 or 15 you would have taken care of younger siblings, or cousins; different people were taking care of children.
In the 20th century, families were smaller, people were having children later, people were moving. People in their 30s and 40s were working and not being experienced at taking care of children—the idea was that the same [skills] to succeed at work and school were the same [skills you used for] shaping children.
Q: You write in the book about paradoxes of love and paradoxes of learning. What are some examples of these, and how do they challenge the “parenting” model?
A: If you think about what it means to be a parent in a deeper way, it is a paradoxical relationship. There’s the paradox of love—when we love a child and make a complete contribution to a person, though we don’t know what the child will be like, and carry on that…through a lifetime.
We have an overwhelming commitment, and it is to have the child be completely autonomous of us. If the grownup child sends an occasional message from a different city, you’re doing pretty well!
There’s an amazing asymmetry—the first 20 years are devoted to a helpless creature, and then the child is independent. There is a deep tension in the relationship of parenting.
The paradox of learning, the one thing that makes humans distinctive—we have the capacity for culture, and can hand it on to the next generation.
But we have a tension between passing on our traditions, and the next generation having a chance to remodel and revise traditions, and sometimes reject them.
Q: You suggest that “the distinctive example of caring for children may help us solve other difficult moral and political questions.” How do you think that could come about?
A: If you’re thinking about the process of love, there’s one example where we have contributed to people even though there’s no obvious outcome, we tend to think of everything as a means of production and consumption. Children are a poorly paid job or an expensive luxury item!
The way we treat the elderly—it’s obviously important to take care of your elderly parents, but the way we have set it up now is you sacrifice your own income or pay someone else. It’s similar to what happens with children. We don’t have a slot, a way of organizing that.
Q: You’ve discussed the carpenter model--how was the book’s title chosen and what does it signify for you?
A: The idea is trying to draw a contrast between the two pictures of having children. “Parenting” is the carpenter model. The alternative is more like gardening—it’s an old metaphor, kindergarten.
If you’re the kind of gardener I am, you work hard and you’re up to your ears in manure! Nothing comes out the way you plan. Of course, that is part of what makes a garden wonderful.
There is a deeper scientific sense of a good metaphor—when you garden, you create a good ecosystem, resilient in the face of change. That is what you want to do as a parent.
A meadow is a nice example. You have enough possibilities so even when there’s a drought or a flood, the ecosystem can respond. You want fertile soil. You want that as a parent as well.
Q: Are you working on another book now?
A: I am. It’s going to be totally different—about David Hume, the great philosopher, and about Buddhism, not about children! It’s about what happens when you’re in midlife and don’t have children any more.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb